Here’s how my Friday night went.
I meet my friend Mo, whom I haven’t seen in months, at a bar. He introduces me to his friend, Sam. (Names are changed.)
When we settle in, Sam asks where I’m from. “I was born in China and grew up in Chicago,” I reply and Sam says that he hates Chicago.
“They can bomb that city to shit.”
I’m a bit taken aback by how intense he’s being. My problem with Chicago is that it can't seem to produce a single musical artist who is simultaneously talented and not a white supremacist or pedophile (sorry Common, you’re not talented), but jeez, no need to bomb the place.
“Fair enough,” I say.
Later on, Mo mentions that I’ve lost weight, he could tell when we hugged.
I grimace a bit and say, “You can’t talk about people’s bodies.”
I grew up in ‘90s American diet culture, as well as the simultaneous fat phobia + food scarcity + “food is love” that is pervasive in Chinese culture. My mother, perhaps like yours, will tell me that I’m getting fat and then immediately offer to make me something to eat. I have plenty of friends, including men, who experience(d) some sort of disordered eating. All things considered, I have a comparatively easy, though still policed, relationship with food. But I would just rather that people didn't talk about my body.
Mo is about to respond and Sam jumps in with, “That’s just liberal PC bullshit. He can say that. Intention matters.”
I’m pissed. I find myself repeatedly trying to think things through and talk things over with Mo but Sam keeps peppering me with comments about “liberal PC bullshit” and “intention matters”. He’s being really aggressive.
I agree that liberal political correctness shuts down a lot of discourse that is actually harmless or otherwise vital to reducing harm. There are certainly ways that I unconsciously participate.
Did my comment come from that space? I don’t think so, but it’s something that I’m open to talking about with someone who isn’t going to attack me.
But in this moment, I can tell that Sam is not going to be that interlocutor. I’m mainly irritated that someone is telling me something about myself without knowing who I am. I tell Sam to back off, “You’re coming at me with a lot of animosity right now.”
“So are you with how you’re talking to Mo,” he retorts.
“No, Mo and I have a rapport where we can talk like that. We have a trust where we can talk things through. You don’t know me, I don’t trust you, and you can’t talk to me like that,” I say back.
Sam turns the other way, gulps down the rest of his beer and leaves in a huff. We don’t say goodbye, of course.
As angry as I was, I found the whole thing incredibly delicious. It was so satisfying to see Sam leave—the result of me standing up for myself in a calm and measured way.
I’m proud of how I handled the situation. I don’t think I would have been able to do the same a couple years ago. This is the product of a lot of coaching and work on myself. These areas of growth in particular shine through:
- The ability to recognize my anger as legitimate. Anger is a form of intelligence. It doesn’t mean I get to lash out or be a bully. But it’s saying something real and I can listen. Before I would have sensed my anger but pushed it aside in order to avoid conflict.
- The ability to stand up for myself and exercise a boundary. Often I don’t know my boundary until it gets crossed. I’ve learned that it’s fine, I just recognize and communicate it.
- The ability to be disliked and misunderstood. Sam wasn’t going to like or understand me because he was projecting a lot onto me. It’s fine, it’s nothing personal. Even if it were personal, that’s fine too. Nobody is entitled to be liked. Later while talking to Mo, I learn that Sam had just spent ten years living in Cairo and was having a hard time re-integrating into white liberal bubbles. (Berlin is a terrible place for that.) I get it, I would have a hard time too, and I see how Sam was simply not going to like me—not for who I am, but for the person he makes me out to be. That’s fine. I wasn’t trying to change his opinion of me. When I told him to back off, I was just exercising a boundary, not trying to prove anything to him to make him like me. I have no need to be liked.
- The ability to be sober. I wasn’t drinking alcohol at the bar. I just had a rhubarb soda, which helped me manage my reaction better than alcohol would have. I started drinking a lot less after dropping into my body and realizing that I don’t have that much fun with alcohol, in fact, it depresses me (because alcohol is biochemically literally a depressant).
- The ability to be uncomfortable. Not drinking in social situations is a little uncomfortable. I’m often a little bored, awkward, and under-stimulated. Having someone you met five minutes ago say a number of aggressive things to you is going to be uncomfortable. Standing up for yourself and engaging in conflict is going to be uncomfortable. It’s all fine. I no longer have a disregulated nervous system and can ride the wave. Discomfort is just a sensation within the giant kaleidoscope of emotion than any human will experience.
I write this not just to celebrate this night but to make a point about the spillover effects of getting coached. The past year, I’ve been getting coached on my marketing, not how to fight in bars. But there are spillover effects everywhere in my life. My hangups about marketing have centered around these exact themes that played out at the bar: taking up space, being disliked, being uncomfortable.
We don’t have siloes where our professional lives are separate from our personal. We are one. For instance, the belief that you can stand up for yourself to a bad manager will impact how you stand up to a difficult parent, a lousy friend, or a partner who takes more than they give. I’ve done work with clients where we just talk about one challenging work relationship and then they come back to me a couple months later telling me that a lot of their relationships are much healthier.
Any work you do in one area is going to be multiplied. Trust in the investment you’re making. Trust in the process. Trust in the gift you’re giving your future self. Trust that everywhere you turn, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that you’re no longer the same person you used to be.
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